Africa faces critical challenges in health. Thirty-six per cent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. The continent has 14 per cent of the world’s population and, yet, only 3 per cent of the world’s health workforce. Population growth is exponential. Africa carries 25 per cent of the global disease burden and has had a 20 per cent increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) between 2010 and 2020. Only 30 per cent of Africa’s population has access to primary healthcare. In the face of these many obstacles, the private sector becomes an essential contributor to the way forward.
As the engine of growth, the private sector provides innovative and efficient solutions that are designed specifically for the African context. Businesses, as opposed to governments and donors, tend to look at the way things could be, rather than getting stuck in the bureaucracy and policy of the way things are now. Out of necessity, the private sector generally has an acute awareness of what the real needs of their customers are, meaning they are often the most well-equipped to meet those needs.
Additionally, the private sector’s footprint in health is continually increasing, not only in the areas of healthcare that have traditionally been attributed to them, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing. Their influence is cross-cutting, affecting every industry within the healthcare sector. When it comes to service provision, the focus has historically been on the public sector, but this thinking is outdated, with almost half of the African population now receiving healthcare services from private sector clinics.
One of the main barriers to receiving quality healthcare is the issue of affordability. There may be quality healthcare services available, but the cost can be prohibitive for the majority of the population. The private sector has plenty of room to grow in this area. Too many people across the continent have to pay out of pocket for treatment, often leading to entire families falling into poverty. Sudan has an out-of-pocket health expenditure of 74 per cent, the highest in the continent. Creative solutions are needed to solve these incredibly complex problems and, although the government needs to be responsible for taking care of the poorest segments of the population, the private sector is best placed to design and implement solutions that make healthcare affordable for the majority of the population.
The area where the private sector has most thrived is technology. Whether it’s the production of medical equipment and supplies, capitalising on the technology that already exists (like mobile phones) and applying it to the health sector, or making strides toward the use of blockchain in data management, the private sector has taken the lead and pushed medical advancement forward at a rapid rate. With technology, Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog the progress of more developed regions. For example, avoiding the need for road infrastructure by delivering blood or medications by drone. Or using mobile phone technology to connect a doctor in London with an X-ray technician in rural Uganda. These technological advancements will both increase quality and reduce costs.
The private sector also has a role to play in transitioning Africa from a curative to a preventative focus on healthcare. With the increased percentage of the disease burden falling under the category of NCDs and preventative illnesses, the private health sector, along with strategic partners (such as in the media and education sectors), can influence behaviour change that will keep the Africans of the future living healthier, more productive lives.
Despite the many challenges this continent faces, if public and private health sectors can capitalise on what they each do best, supporting each other and working in tandem, there are many reasons to be hopeful about the future of healthcare in Africa. If Africa’s youthful population can maintain their health and continue contributing to the economy, we could see transformational growth in every area of society. The private sector has much to offer, but it will take an enabling environment as well as strong investment from private sector organisations.
Discover more about the future of healthcare at Africa Health Exhibition 2019.
Contents by: Dr. Amit Thakker, Chairman, Africa Healthcare Federation, and Joelle Mumley, Marketing & PR, Africa Health Business, Kenya